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It has been nearly five years since Kayla Harrison signed with what was then known as the World Series of Fighting. The partnership between the fighter and organization—now known as the Professional Fighters League—wound up being a great one for both parties. Harrison has dominated the competition and become the company’s top star. The PFL is a more stable organization, and the two-time Olympic gold medalist is a big part of its marketing push to advertisers and investors.
Harrison for her part has won one $1 million tournament prize, in addition to her base pay, and is in the midst of a push for her second. She’s now two fights away, with the first taking place in the PFL 8 main event on Thursday in Hollywood, Florida, where she enters as a massive favorite against Genah Fabian. If she wins that bout, she faces either Taylor Guardado (2-1 as a pro) or Larissa Pacheco (a woman she has already beaten convincingly on two occasions). That leaves Harrison well-positioned for another huge payday, but then there’s the additional factor: After those two fights, she can become a free agent.
When Harrison approached free agency previously, she seemed happy to sign a guaranteed seven-figure extension with the PFL. This time, she has made it clear she’s interested in free agency. She even suggested to MMAJunkie Radio that she’s likely to be one of the biggest free agents in the history of the sport. That may sound hyperbolic, but she’s not far off the mark. Not only does she have the talent and the personality to connect in a major way with the general public, but she also has logical routes forward with three different companies.
It’s no secret the fight PFL would like to make: two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Harrison against two-time Olympic boxing gold medalist Claressa Shields. Not only do they have the compelling parallel stories, but they’re physically well-matched with nearly identical heights and weights. The problem with making the fight is that Harrison is just so far ahead of Shields at this stage of their MMA careers; however, Shields, at 26, has time to improve. Moreover, if Shields decides she wants the challenge, it’s hardly Harrison’s problem if her opponent may be overmatched in the rule set.
Probably the best matchup that can be made for Harrison anywhere is in Bellator MMA: Cristiane Justino. Justino’s size, power and comfort in the clinch make her better suited for Harrison than other top female pound-for-pound fighters who generally compete in the 115- to 135-pound range. It also could be a shot in the arm for Bellator, which has struggled to attract TV viewers in recent years. Bellator isn’t likely to be in heavy spending mode right now, but that was also the case when it signed Justino; Harrison is the perfect opponent to maximize that investment.
There is also, of course, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC remains the biggest stage for MMA, but it has struggled to create a new marquee female star since Ronda Rousey left the company. The UFC has few fighters close to Harrison’s size, but the Middletown, Ohio, native has once fought at 145 pounds. She would clearly prefer not to fight at that weight, but doing it once may well have been a test for future reference. A fight with Amanda Nunes would be a big deal, and with the right promotion, it could make her a star right out of the gate. There aren’t a lot of obvious opponents after that, but Rousey proved a superstar can draw on her own with the business fights, as was the case in her bout with Bethe Correia.
UFC President Dana White’s recent comments about not being sure Harrison is ready for the UFC is all- too-familiar code that indicates the UFC is interested but wants a UFC-friendly deal. Just like Jon Jones, she can prove how serious she is about taking specific fights by lowering her contract demands. Unfortunately for fans, the UFC’s guaranteed money pay-per-view deal with ESPN gives it less incentive to ante up for the biggest fights. Still, the publicity and interest Harrison could bring would be a major benefit for the organization.
Harrison again showed the perceptiveness and intelligence that has benefitted her throughout her career during the buildup for PFL 8. Her decision to call out a reporter for inappropriately commenting on her opponent’s looks during a media call was the right thing to do. There is a tricky balance for an athlete in situations like that. There is the risk of coming off like you are unnecessarily picking fights if you speak up. However, you also don’t want to be an accessory to bad behavior by letting it go without comment. Harrison picked a good moment to make a valid point and encourage equitable treatment of female athletes. It was the smart play, as Harrison so often makes.
Harrison is going to need to be savvy with her next decision because there are sure to be strong pros and cons when it comes to her choice for her next contract. Harrison’s MMA career has been quite successful already, but there are still much higher levels to attain. At 31, the likelihood is that the next few years will be the ones that define her MMA career.
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